How to Buy a Small Business Computer

By Rob Lather | Posted July 01, 2010

Buying small business computers can affect business profitability, efficiency and employee productivity in profound ways and -- as with purchasing a new car – the trade-offs between the options and accessories are not as simple as shrugging your shoulders and lamenting, "You get what you pay for."

Just like a new car owner, small business owners are within their rights to expect their small business computers to be user-friendly, functional and, perhaps most importantly, to always work.  While not everyone requires the extravagance of a Bentley, most people need more than a Smart Car.

Fortunately, innumerable choices exist in the middle.  Therefore, any IT purchase, particularly for desktop or notebook PCs, should always start with one question:  “What will provide the maximum amount of business efficiency at a price I can afford?” 

Three Essential Small Business Computer Specs

When evaluating new computers, first consider what specifications will best serve the application needs of the person using it.  Often, organizations buy more capacity than necessary.  Conversely, in the name of frugality, businesses frequently buy equipment that doesn’t have the computing power to absorb the software upgrades they are likely to see over the three-plus year life of a desktop or notebook computer. 


Think long term, and consider the following three variables at the start of your purchase decision:

Processing speed:  The speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), of a computer processor determines how quickly applications run.  Naturally, the greater number of cores – internal processors – the faster a computer will operate.  In general, computers today contain at least a dual-core but can increase to quad- or six-core, as need requires.

Memory:  Random Access Memory (RAM) is the computer’s short-term, internal memory that loads and runs applications and manipulates data. Everything written to RAM is lost when you turn off the computer.  Adding more RAM reduces the number of times the computer must read code and data from the hard disk in order to complete a task, which allows a computer to work faster

Storage:  The amount of storage (gigabytes, or GB) within your computer determines how much information you can save on the computer’s hard drive. The more software applications and data you save on your computer, the more storage capacity you need.

Assessing Small Business Computer Requirements

Evaluate your business’s need for each variable independently, beginning with an assessment of the software’s minimum system requirements.  It is important to note that the specifications on the side of the software package or on the manufacturer’s website are typically the bare minimum required to operate an application, and in isolation at that. 

Do not buy a computer meeting only the minimum requirement for an operating system (OS), for example, and expect it to run efficiently with a handful of applications and a Web browser running on top of the OS.  But there are some valid trade offs to consider when you increase your hardware specs beyond the minimum.

For example, for small business computers that will only run a productivity suite of office applications (Microsoft Office or Apple’s iWork, for example) you should consider buying two-to-three times the software manufacturer’s stated minimum RAM requirement, so you can be confident the computer will operate smoothly and quickly when you (or your employee) has many documents, spreadsheets and Internet browser windows open simultaneously. 

Skimp on the RAM, and you may slow your employees to a crawl -- hardly productive or efficient use of their time, and in the long run, their time is costing you much more than the extra up-front RAM investment will. 

However, on that same computer, you can probably afford to give up a little processor speed, because the computing tasks are relatively simple.  If you are attaching that same computer to a network with central storage, then you only need enough hard disk for the software applications you’ll install and the associated upgrades you reasonably expect over the life of the computer. Add a small margin for a little data, but remember that huge hard disks only discourage wise use of network storage. 

Should you be in the market for a computer to support graphic design, photo and video editing, computer-assisted design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) or proprietary or specialized software applications, think big.  Because of the volume of data these types of applications manipulate, computers that host them will need a healthy dose of all three variables -- processor speed, RAM, and hard disk -- to support the large, active project files as well as the software. 

A good starting point for all prospective buyers is evaluating the minimum system requirements for the applications you use and comparing it with the computers you are considering for purchase.  As an example, the new Windows 7 OS requires at least a 1 GHz or faster processor, 2 GB RAM and 20 GB available hard disk space. 

Microsoft Office 2007 for Business is more modest, requiring just a 500 MHz processor (that’s 0.5 GHz -- pretty slow), 256 MB of RAM (or .256 GB) and 2 GB of hard disk space.  Your best bet for long term productivity and hassle-free operation is to size your computer to at least twice the sum of the combined specs of the OS and productivity suite (in our example, 3 GHz processor, 4 GB of RAM, and – to be practical – at least 44 GB of hard disk storage space).

Internet browsing, especially playing video or audio online, is a RAM hog and can slow a computer significantly -- so, if your business requires Internet capabilities, consider whether authorized use of your equipment will include Internet browsing, and if so, what kind of resources the computer needs in order to browse at a reasonable pace.

Take Your Pick: Desktop or Notebook PC

Once you have determined the requirements your hardware needs to perform effectively based on your business needs, it’s time to decide between a desktop and a notebook.

Desktops usually provide powerful computing performance at a reasonable cost, so they remain the best value for non-mobile workers. On the other hand, the mobility notebook PCs provide can increase productivity and add business resilience if your or your employees travel or the business location closes down unexpectedly.  Workers with mobile capabilities can continue working, helping your business avoid significant, costly downtime.  

Finally, consider the following tips as you near your buying decision:

Jump in the Pool:  Industry consortia and buying groups pool their resources to set up purchasing agreements with vendors.  Buying through a group can offer you significant volume discounts, even as a small organization.  However, you may need to compromise on your equipment specifications in order to get the best prices, so this avenue won’t be effective for every product you buy

Buy in Bulk:  Purchasing hardware or software in volume can decrease the overall price per unit, based on manufacturer incentives, and you don’t necessarily have to buy hundreds or thousands of units to reap the benefits. Sometimes simply buying five units helps bring the price down.  If you require more than one unit, don’t be afraid to ask about discounts.

Go to Plan B:  Almost all resellers have some secondary stock (a "B" stock) of unopened, returned equipment.  Though the equipment is returned for various reasons, most vendors evaluate the equipment to ensure that it is in working order.  As returns are harder to sell, resellers will often provide very good deals to eliminate their "B" stock.  Always ask a sales representative what is available in "B" stock

Whether your business needs small business computers that perform like Porsches or pickup trucks, don’t be taken for a ride by a great price on clunkers, and don’t buy the Porsche just to show it off.  Buy exactly the right vehicle for the loads you plan to carry and the speeds you want to drive.

Rob Lather is a manager of client computing at CDW.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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